For that once in a lifetime holiday vacation, Valencia is hardly top of mind. To most outside Spain, the country’s third largest city after Madrid and Barcelona isn’t known for little more than oranges and paella. That’s too bad because the sun-drenched Mediterranean port city offers some of the best beaches, fiestas, and architecture in all of Spain.
Among the international jet set, Valencia is fast gaining a reputation as a party hotspot and hub for designer fashion and contemporary art. Global sporting events like the America's Cup yachting race and Formula 1 Grand Prix have also helped raise Valencia’s profile among the elite. Even budget travelers are starting to take notice—the Lonely Planet guidebook has belatedly included Valencia in its top 10 destinations in 2011.
Far from being a late bloomer, the city the Romans called Valentia Edetonarum was already an important military colony in the 2nd century BC. In succeeding centuries, the city changed hands between the Moors and Catholics, a history of invasion and reqonquistathat has made Valencia one of the most’ multicultural and architecturally significant in Spain.
The historic center
The city, founded by the Romans in 137 BC, is best explored on foot. The most important historical landmarks can be found within the labyrinth of ancient streets of the Barrio del Carmen in the historic center of town.
Start your tour at the Valencia Cathedral (Plaza del Zaragosa), where what is claimed to be the Holy Grail of Christian legend is displayed in a chapel within. The Cathedral is a symbol of the city’s multicultural heritage. Moors occupying the city after the collapse of the Roman Empire built a mosque on what was once the site of a Roman temple. In the 13th century, the Christian army led by El Cid converted it into a church in the Gothic architectural tradition. Over the centuries, Romanesque and Baroque features were added, making the Valencia Cathedral one of a few in Europe to display all three styles in a single structure.
Further down past ancient buildings and remnants of Roman walls is the 15th-century La Lonja (Plaza del Mercado), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The exquisitely decorated late Gothic building was once used as a silk and commodities exchange, and represents Valencia’s influence and wealth in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Art Nouveau and ‘Modernisme’ buildings
Like Barcelona to its north, Valencia is a treasure trove of early 20th-century Art Nouveau and Catalan modernist design. Visitors arriving at the main train station Estacion del Norte (Calle Jativa) get a close-up view of the decorative architectural style inspired by the Austrian Art Nouveau movement. The interiors are adorned with ceramic murals and stained glass depicting life in the Valencian countryside.
The Mercado Central (Plaza del Mercado) is an even more impressive interpretation of the Art Nouveau style. The huge iron and stained glass structure that houses up to 1,500 market stalls is one of the most attractive in all of Europe. On weekday mornings, the brightly lit market is a fun place to shop for local produce—including the city’s most famous export—Valencia oranges.
The Mercado Colon (Calle Jorge Juan) is a smaller, but equally impressive cast iron and glass Art Nouveau structure with a plethora of cafés that give the space its unique charm. Just across the Plaza del Ayuntamiento or city hall plaza is an entire neighborhood dedicated to the architectural style. Explore street after street of banks, offices, and hotels in Valencian modernist style.
The Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias
The City of Arts and Sciences (CAS, Autopista del Saler) is Valencia's iconic landmark and one of the most famous buildings in Spain. Designed and engineered by Valencia native and world-acclaimed architect Santiago Calatrava, together with Felix Candela, the avant-garde building complex contains an interactive science museum, a performing arts center, an IMAX theater and planetarium, hanging gardens, and the largest aquarium in Europe. Unique for any city in Spain, the CAS is open all 365 days of the year.
The Mediterranean coastline
The coast of Valencia along the Mediterranean is a popular destination for taking in the city's famously cloudless sky (more than 300 days a year) and lively beach culture. During the annual Las Fallas festival in March, the seaside is the best place to escape the noise of firecrackers and street parties in the city. The broad esplanade bordering the Malvarossa beach is ideal for strolling or watching water sports competitions like the America’s Cup yacht race hosted by Valencia.
The annual, month-long festival in March is the single most compelling reason to visit Valencia. The revelry is at its highest point on the week of March 19, the feast day of St. Joseph the Carpenter. Parades, street parties, light shows and fireworks displays take place in every corner of the city and last from morning and until after midnight. The highlight of the festival is the competition for the best fallas among Valencia’s over 350 neighborhood committees. Each elaborate and gravity-defying papier-mâché and Styrofoam fallas can cost up to 200,000 euros, taking up to an entire year to build—and a single night to burn.
The fallas are more than just for visual entertainment; they function to preserve Valencia’s social fabric. Throughout the year, families and neighbors pitch in to raise money or help construct and paint the fallas—at first in individual homes, and later, as the structures grow bigger, in neighborhood squares. On the final week of the competition, the entire city celebrates with a myriad of colorful activities. Every day at two in the afternoon, up to half a million residents and tourists line the streets around the Plaza del Ayuntamiento to experience the Mascleta—a dazzling firecracker show that slowly builds to a deafening and explosive climax.
A parade of a more devilish character takes place on the final night of the Fallas. In the Correfoc along Calle Colon in the commercial heart of Valencia, men and women dressed up as demons and fire-breathing beasts come descend upon the street. The Carnival of Fire is a prelude to the crema—the series of bonfires that light up the giant fallas in squares all over the city at midnight. The simultaneous torching of the fallas is accompanied by drinking and dancing, and culminates in the penultimate street party at the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, where more than a million Valencianosconverge to witness the last falla standing burn to the ground in a hushed and emotional ceremony that signals the end of the loudest and longest fiesta in Spain.
Photographs by David Celdran
Crema photo courtesy of Spain Tourism Board. This piece originally came out in Issue 4, 2011 of Vault magazine.